To mark World Rhino Day 2021, preparations are almost complete for a unique cremation ceremony, where 2,479 rhino horns will be burnt in the sporting field of Bokakhat, Assam on Wednesday. As many as six giant gas furnaces, each with three tiers are in place to burn these horns which have been preserved for years.
”Rhino horns from Barpeta, Morigan, Barpeta, Mangaldoi, Tezpur Nagaon, BTR, Golaghat, and Kohora have been deposited in the Bokakhat treasury. Tomorrow morning at 6 am we shall take out the horns and from 6.30 am you will them being segregated in stocks to be burnt and those to be preserved. The horns shall be scanned and we have arranged for a webcast so that the world can be a part of it,” said M K Yadava, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and HoF, Assam Forest Department.
On September 16, the state cabinet unanimously decided to publicly burn 2,467 pieces of rhino horns out of 2,623 rhino horns stock piled in state treasuries. As many as 94 rhino stockpiled rhino horns will be preserved as archive properties for academic purposes while 50 of them would be reserved for court cases. The exercise will be executed in accordance with the relevant section of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and in compliance with a Gauhati High Court order in 2010 that had directed the Assam forest department to hold a public hearing on the proposed burning of the rhino horns.
“The decision of rhino horn burning genesis in 2009 when the then government decided to send the stockpiled rhino horn to different museums of the world and the rest to be presented as mementos to visiting foreign dignitaries. At that time there were around 1600 stockpiled rhino horn in state treasuries. We opposed the move as these horns should not be used as animal trophies and is against the international protocols. The horns are the animals defense mechanism and once the animal is no longer there then there is no point in preserving the horns,” said Mubina Akhtar member of the recent verification committee in Guwahati and Golaghat.
Stock poling also sends a wrong message to the existing clandestine Southeast Asian market which deals with these horns and the government has finally decided to verify the horns and in 2012 it was finalized that the horns shall be put to flames in Diphu of Karbi Anglong district, she added.
A PIL was filed in the Guwahati High Court challenging the authenticity of the horns stalled the initiative and the government then formed a central, technical and zonal committee to take up the re-verification of the stock piled rhino horns, she further added.
The initiative would send a straight message to those involved in the illegal trade of rhino horns and those still influenced by the faith that rhino horns hold wonder powers. A statement issued by Assam Environment Minister Parimal Suklabaidya Tuesday stated, “This is the largest public destruction of the stockpile of horns of the Greater One-Horned rhino and is aimed to propagate and reinforce the fact that rhino’s horns do not have any medicinal value.”
“We have ensured that even the residual ash of the horns after burning is properly disposed of. As you are aware that in some prevalent medicinal practice in China the ash is believed to be used and thus the smuggling. The ash will be cast in concrete and we have decided to sculpt a life size rhino of the ash concrete cast. It will take time but the casting shall commence from tomorrow. The rhino shall be treasured in the museum that is planned to come up here.” Yadava said.
These horns were recovered from poachers or collected from dead rhinos in the state’s national parks, and kept under the custody of the forest department or treasuries in various districts. There is a standing Supreme Court instruction to burn recovered wild animal body parts like elephant tusks and rhino horns. While Assam had disposed of horns recovered before 1979, those collected since have been reportedly preserved because of the locals’ emotional attachment to them.
“Forest officials and guards have an emotional attachment with the horns as they had collected them from poachers or dead animals. Some have opposed the burning of the horns. I empathize with the emotional connection but I feel that we need to destroy them as piling them year over year will only create a giant heap of a non-functional object,” said Mubina Akhtar.
In India, one-horned rhinos were declared endangered in 1975, but were downgraded to ‘vulnerable’ in the 2008 Red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the government figures since 2017 poachers have killed 22 one-horned rhinos and 644 poachers have been arrested so far. The government has installed 10 fast-track sessions courts for speedy trials of wildlife-related crimes.
“I cannot fathom the fact that rhino horns shall be burnt. You cannot hide the fact that the animal is being poached in Assam by burning the horns. Instead the horns should have been preserved in museums so that people can see them and understand the vulnerability of the animal and empathise with them. They can contemplate on ways and means of protecting them” said Akhil Gogoi MLA Sibsagar Assam.
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma along with the state forest minister Parimal Shulklabaidya and host of cabinet ministers shall be part of the historic event to dispel all myth shrouding rhino horn and its poaching by putting the horns to flames and the ceremony would also witness a prayer service.
“I believe the burning of rhino is essential for the preservation of the pride of Assam. The rhino is our state animal and I have been campaigning for World Rhino Day. The burning couldn’t have come on a better day than this” said Suhan Mallick, Friend of Rhino and Green Hero Assam.
The 2018 census yielded an estimated 2,650 rhinos in Assam, and if one goes by the annual rate of increase in the animal population, there should be close to 3,000 individuals today.